Movies about America’s war on terror have fared dismally at the box office. But if anyone can succeed in sexing up this subject matter, it’s Ridley Scott. He’s done it before with Black Hawk Down, salvaging a heroic action movie from the disastrous carnage of the U.S. Ranger’s disastrous 1993 mission in Somalia. With Body of Lies, Scott creates a rollicking spy thriller out from the rubble of the Iraq war. Body of Lies takes a departure from the recent spate of Iraq war movies, which seem designed to convey a dire political message. In this case, the main vehicle is entertainment. The political sentiments seem like an option, some custom upholstery designed to add an air of relevance to a slickly crafted piece of escapism that in the end seems meaningless. You get the impression Sir Ridley can do this sort of thing in his sleep. He’s been scarily prolific lately, churning out four movies in four years— Kingdom of Heaven, A Good Year, American Gangster, and now Body of Lies—three of them loaded with epic action.
Based on a novel by The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius, the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a CIA spy chasing terrorists in the Middle East. My favorite moment is when an Al Qaeda convoy, whisking a prisoner off to a torture chamber, tears around the desert in a brigade of glossy black vans, raising golden plumes of dust into the perfect light, then skids to a halt in a star-shaped formation. Suddenly the war on terror looks as alluring as an SUV commercial.
In Body of Lies, Dicaprio plays a spy with a license to kill who’s a far cry from James Bond, He’s a scruffy dude with a beard who speaks Arabic well enough to pass as a native—but the song remains the same: Leo confronts a soft-spoken, well-educated foreign sadist (Mark Strong) and falls in love with a local dark-eyed beauty (Golshifteh Farahani) who becomes a damsel in distress.
The movie unfolds a conspiracy thriller, with the CIA pulling the strings from the heavenly remove of surveillance technology. Putting a sinister spin on his nerd look from The Insider, a fattened-up Russell Crowe plays a CIA bureaucrat in Virginia who manipulates Leo’s movements from his cell phone from thousands of miles away while serving as a soccer dad. He’s a glib sonofabitch who will cut off a conversation by saying, “I gotta take the kids to The Lion King. Again. Never have kids.”
No matter where Leo is, aerial surveillance allows the CIA drones to sit back and track his movements on a vast screen, which annoys him immensely. Playing a tarnished hero not unlike his character in Blood Diamond, Leo represents the exploited grunt, the man in the field who’s chased, betrayed, beaten, shot at, mauled by rabid dogs, and finally mutilated in a gruesome torture scene. Crowe is the absentee landlord of American intelligence, playing God without giving a hoot about the human consequences, or understanding the delicacy of local alliances.
Much of the politics is lacquered on in scripted speechifying. Once he’s in the clutches of the bad guys, Leo spits out an angry rant setting his Muslim captors straight, “You misinterpret the one book you believe in!” And the logorrheic Crowe is the spy-master as Fox pundit. ln the opening scene, he unleashes a cynical voice-over, laying out his view that America is at a gross disadvantage in the war on terror and that global conflagration is just a shot away: “Do we belong there or not? We can’t even ask that question . . . These people do not want to negotiate. They want every infidel converted or dead. . . We are an easy target, and our world is a lot easier to put an end to than you might think.” When Leo makes a plea for compassion, Crowe says: “You got to decide what side of the cross you’re on. I need nailers, not hangers.”
Good line. But the film’s veracity is undermined by its compulsive use of glib soundbites. Not to mention an over-wound plot that begs disbelief—the intrigue hinges on Leo’s elaborate plan to frame an innocent as a terrorist in order to make his real terrorist logorrheic jealous.
Luxurious visuals and showy performances make Body of Lies quite watchable. The highlight of the cast is Strong, who plays the reptilian head of the Jordanian secret police, an immaculately dressed fingernail puller who likes to point out that he doesn’t believe in torture but does believe in punishment. It’s a fine line. And for the audience it amounts to the same thing, a wallop of grisly violence on wild frontier where American cowboys and Arab terrorists gun SUVs through another desert in Ridley Scott’s perennial quest for eye candy.